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  • Camille Guthrie | Diamonds by Camille Guthrie, BOA Editions, 88 pages. $17.

The title of Camille Guthrie’s fourth collection, Diamonds, couldn’t be more apropos. Shimmering with erudition and sensual humor, these poems feel forged by many years of intense pressure, resulting in a critical edge sharp enough to scratch everything it touches. Or, in the words of author Cathy Park Hong, who hazed the book, it’s “a glorious midlife feminist cry.”

This cry comes from a visiting faculty member at Bennington College who is saddled with debt and struggling to raise two children on her own. In the opening poem, “Virgil, Hey”, she riffs on Dante Alighieri’s epic medieval poem, The Divine Comedy, writing, “Ah me! I find myself middle-aged divorcee lost / In the dark forest of my mortgage failures & loose breasts.” With a relentless drive that refuses to bow to punctuation or mundane representations of motherhood, Guthrie laments her situation.

“Look at my firstborn son,” she tells us in “Virgil, Hey,” “Who put me to bed for three months / For whom I bled on the ER floor / Who rants his device sucks / Drills holes in the wall of the bedroom / Complains that his mountain bike is too slow / Who plots to flee to join terrorists / He would rather die than do math.

Yes Diamonds remained in that personal mode throughout, it would still be a good hypnotic read, but the book has more facets. Guthrie has a masterful talent for remixing classic texts with contemporary language. In doing so, she shows how the daily struggles and desires of a single mother reflect the greater absurdities of society at large.

Diamonds, we learn in the title poem, are what his young daughter strives to accumulate in a video game; diamonds are also what the author would need to get out of debt, “conflict-free diamonds for a conflict-free life”.

“During the Middle Ages” is another remarkable poem. The author struggles with the cognitive dissonance of feeling both enraged by middle-aged existence and grateful for not living in the real Middle Ages. “A local doctor should drill a hole in my head / To let the demons out ’cause I’d be full / Of black bile and heresy like I am today.” Many of the poem’s lines are funny to laugh at: “It’s all so bad and you’ve got buboes // I hope I get pushed into a convent.”

Diamonds is Guthrie’s fourth collection of poetry and her first with BOA Editions. She currently directs Bennington’s undergraduate writing initiatives and holds a BA in English from Vassar College and an MFA from Brown University. The recipient of fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo, she has published numerous articles in magazines and has been anthologized in Best American Poetry in 2019 and 2020.

Ekphrasis, literary commentary or description of visual art, is another facet of the book. “Family Collection” describes a visit to an art museum, where the speaker guides her children past grim Orientalist paintings of slave markets. In the sign next to a painting, a historian has provided context for the image to ensure viewers realize they are watching a 19th century European rape fantasy. “I don’t want my children to stand / Naked before a cruel man to be offered / To travelers for their pleasure / Or to the rich to be their servants or worse.”

The challenge of ekphrasis is to make the poem much more than the simple painting it represents. Guthrie delivers by adding a contemporary global lens to her protective parenting instinct. “Family Connection” continues, “Like the thousands of Syrian children / Disappeared in Europe / Thus speaks the Guardian online this morning.”

The duty of poetry is to push further into context this crucial step, a step that institutions like museums often do not allow: to identify an image not only as a historical artefact of an injustice long since resolved, but as an which is still part of our world.

The second section opens to “My net worth”. The speaker lists her resources, which range from the material (“Seven simple earrings”) to the lyrical (“A heartbeat of unrealistic hope”) and the professional (“Twenty-two years of teaching”). The list ends with the status of his bank account: in the lower three digits. The effect is devastating and speaks to the fragility of a system that promises people the American dream and then burdens them with unshakeable debt, even when armed with an Ivy League graduate degree. .

But the book is by no means an austere read; Diamonds also brimming with passion and is very entertaining. In “My Boyfriend, John Keats,” for example, she fantasizes about wandering the Met with the tubercular romantic poet. “Fanny ain’t got what you need / Fanny ain’t got no antibiotics,” she told him. Guthrie’s earnestness and wit allow for unabashed sensuality. Although more explicit, the poem avoids the grumbling objectification that authors such as Billy Collins, in his controversial poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes”, indulged in; Guthrie’s fantasy is of two people saving each other.

The last part of Diamonds pivots to a more directly speculative mode, referencing the lives of various authors and historical figures. In “Dating Profile,” for example, she imagines an online profile written by Dutch 1500s painter Hieronymous Bosch to hilarious effect. “What I like: I like the bridle mermaids who flirt with anonymous knights, visor down, both ending in a swimming pool.” This too is a form of ekphrasis but taken in an inventive new direction, in which Bosch de Guthrie describes all the bizarre characters in his surreal “Garden of Earthly Delights”.

Guthrie’s laser mind propels these speculative imaginings; the only downside is that by portraying historical figures, she robs readers of the fierce sincerity and nostalgia of her more personal work. The opening poems in the book exude a refreshing, uncensored urgency and passion, a voice that captures your attention and won’t let go.